Singer/songwriter Elizabeth Edwards’ lyrics capture milestones that resonate among those who have taken the recovery journey: the moment of clarity, the decision to surrender, the quest for progress but not perfection. Yet Edwards also has found that her heartfelt words carry meaning for people with other illnesses who have attended her concerts.
“I met one person, a cancer survivor who lives with the disease, who loves my music; she can relate to it from my disease perspective,” says Edwards, 50. “We didn’t ask for this disease, but we have to learn to live with it and have a full life to the best of our ability.”
Edwards, who counts Judy Collins, Joan Baez and Mary Chapin Carpenter among her musical influences, has been writing songs since the age of 13. By 14 she was singing lead in a traveling jazz ensemble. These days, she writes exclusively about recovery, having learned over a painful journey that her talent should be less about self-satisfaction and more about serving others.
“There was a perceptual change: I went from ‘The music is about me’ to ‘Hey girl, you’re pretty talented. This is your gift—take it to the party,’” says Edwards.
Finding the Steps
The words of many of Edwards’ most popular songs, such as “Surrender to Win,” “Cut Me Loose,” and “Clean,” unmistakably celebrate 12-Step recovery (to listen to her songs, visit her website
: Many of her performances have been as an opening act for 12-Step comedian Mark Lundholm. The California native also opened for artists such as Dan Fogelberg and Jesse Colin Young during her career.
Edwards celebrated 25 years of sobriety in October. “The 12 Steps have totally worked for me,” she says, though she is quick to add, “I don’t hit people over the head with that,” either musically or in public.
She had started using substances compulsively at 16, and by 18 had transformed from cheerleading overachiever to high school dropout, leaving home for nine months to be with a drug dealer boyfriend she had known for a few weeks. When Edwards returned home she finished high school and was sober for nine months on her own, but a drink handed to her by a bartender at a restaurant where she worked would lead to six years of heavy drinking.
Edwards describes her drugs of choice as “alcohol, cocaine and anything that made me go fast.” She found herself in a perpetual cycle of working hard and then telling herself she deserved the drink that would lead to the next binge. Both of her parents were children of alcoholics, and they had unsuccessfully tried to convey that religion was the solution to Edwards’ problem.
At 23 Edwards met a man who was drinking a cola at a dance; he would become her second husband. He had found 12-Step recovery before they met, but the concept was still foreign to her. “I didn’t trust people who didn’t drink,” she recalls.
Yet around the same time, her increasingly erratic behavior with her young son would begin to get her attention. She describes as “my last hurrah” a four-day period in which she left the 3-year-old with a babysitter on a Thursday night and then woke up from a binge on Sunday afternoon. She was losing the ability to pull things back together after one of these episodes.
A friend who had gone to a few 12-Step meetings as part of a school curriculum was worried about Edwards and took her to a meeting, and things quickly began to change after that point. “I felt totally different,” she recalls. “I thought, ‘This is what’s wrong with me.’” She adds, “Pain is this incredible gift if you allow it to grab your attention.”
Today Edwards sponsors many women in recovery. She also frequently visits college campuses to offer songwriting workshops as well as performances of her songs of hope. She wrote her first recovery-focused song in the early 1990s, and that is what connected her with Lundholm, the 12-Step comedian.
She went on to record three discs in that decade, and she received extensive exposure through the Lilith Fair concerts in San Francisco in 1998. Edwards currently is working on her fourth CD.
Edwards is able to make a living in an environment where alcohol is prevalent, because she knows she is physically, mentally and emotionally different from before. “You have to totally re-establish who you are in your own head,” she says.
The sentiment is expressed in the words to “Clean,” a current song that is expanding Edwards’ audience in the recovery community and beyond: “When I change, the world will change with me.”